Flashback: ‘ Batman Returns’

The summer of 1992 saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight faced with two iconic foes in Tim Burton’s second (and final) Batman film…

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The superb Michael Keaton dons the cape and cowl once more in ‘Batman Returns’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1992

Starring:  Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

Directed by:  Tim Burton / written by:  Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm)

What’s it about?

Batman faces a new challenge when a corrupt businessman plots with the villainous Penguin to seize control of Gotham City, with matters further complicated by the appearance of the mysterious ‘Catwoman’…

Retrospective/review

Given the blockbuster success of Batman in the summer of 1989, Warner Bros. Pictures were naturally keen on producing a sequel.  Released in June of 1992, Batman Returns, whilst not as good as its landmark predecessor (although for some the reverse applies) easily qualifies as a strong second outing for Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight.  Although there’s slightly less focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Returns is still very much a Batman film lovingly produced through the dark gothic imaginings of Tim Burton.  It’s clear that Burton was given more creative freedom as Batman Returns has even more of an idiosyncratic and fantastical touch that makes it unmistakably a Tim Burton film, but still feels appropriate for a major Batman feature born in the era of seminal comics works The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and would also serve to inspire the exemplary Batman: The Animated Series.

Having formerly taken on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns doubles the jeopardy with two main antagonists – the Penguin and Catwoman, who are reinvented for this iteration.  Danny DeVito lives and breathes the role of Oswald Cobblepot – otherwise known as ‘the Penguin’ – his podgy, diminutive build, pointed nose and flipper-like hands giving him somewhat of a grotesque and literally penguin-like appearance, effectively evoked via the brilliant make-up design.  Much like the ‘monsters’ of the classic Universal horrors, his villainy is driven by tragedy – specifically, abandonment by his parents as an infant – and a desire for acceptance.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a similar revelation as Selina Kyle, starting out as the meek underdog before the fateful incident that leads to her ‘rebirth’ as the sultry and formidable Catwoman who, like Bruce Wayne, finds herself grappling with dual personas.

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The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) provide double the trouble for Batman (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Colluding with DeVito’s Penguin is the excellent Christopher Walken (who previously proved his worth as a villain in James Bond outing A View to a Kill) as devious Gotham businessman Max Schreck – named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlock in the classic German horror Nosferatu – who brings further weight to the threat Batman must face.  As for Michael Keaton he continues to impress, deftly straddling the line between his two identities bringing emotional complexity to Bruce Wayne, aided greatly by the chemistry he shares with Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, whilst applying a confident measure of brooding and intensity once he dons the iconic cape and cowl of the Batman.

Batman Returns is a very atmospheric film (benefitting from another great Danny Elfman music score), the Christmas holiday setting and frequent snowfall adding a feeling of wintry crispness to the gothic chill evoked by Bo Welch’s wonderful sets which build upon Anton Furst’s Academy Award winning work on the previous film.  A gentle increase in humour provides an element of quirkiness and levity (especially in the exchanges between Bruce and Michael Gough’s Alfred) without undermining the darker and more dramatic themes of the story.  As with Batman, the stunts and choreography in the fight sequences are top-notch and coupled with superbly staged action set-pieces (bolstered by some deftly executed pyrotechnics) provide plenty of visual excitement.  It all makes for a fun and artfully crafted comic book blockbuster at a time when such a thing wasn’t so common.

Read the classics review of Batman (1989) right here.

Geek fact!

Batman Returns features an early screen appearance from Hellboy and Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones as one of Penguin’s circus clown goons.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

16 thoughts on “Flashback: ‘ Batman Returns’

  1. Batman Returns is one of the rare sequels that almost surpasses the original. Burton’s dark vision for the Dark Knight is beautiful realised on screen, with Batman squaring up against the combined menace of Penguin and Catwoman, and the business man Max Schreck. Its a great superhero film and the Christmas setting gives it an added edge 🙂

      • Same here, the original Batman (1989) film is still my favourite. I do like Batman Returns though, its such a great gothic looking movie. Think its the one with the best looking Bat-Suit as well, it just has the tone of the Dark Knights suit just right. 🙂

  2. Michelle Pfeiffer looks incredible as Catwoman. The humor in this film blended well with the dark look. After this film however the comedy went overboard.

  3. Wonderful review as always, Chris. This was indeed a formidable atmospheric movie with iconic roles played by incredible actors. It’s hard to not think of this iteration of Catwoman and Penguin when you think of those two characters in their live-action forms. I also love that this one somehow had an extra touch of Burton’s directorial touch. But man… the next two movies after Batman Returns must’ve killed so many fans though ahahaha

    I think Matt Reeves could many accomplish something pretty good without falling in the “too many characters” trap if he keeps some of the major villains as secondary villains who don’t steal the show. I continue to pray that it will work for the better hahah

    • Thanks Lashaan! It really is a shame that we never got that third Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman film…but at least Burton’s two outings were so good and paved the way for the exceptional animated series that we all love.

      I think Matt Reeves knows what he’s doing and some villains may only feature in smallish introductory roles with his mind on creating a potential trilogy. Again, I loved his Planet of the Apes films and that’s a franchise I adore…so fingers crossed he similarly impresses with Batman.

  4. Loved this review! Strangely enough I prefer this film over the original even though it wasn’t well received.
    I felt Keaton grew into his dual role nicely and the villains were so memorable especially Catwoman. Yes it was a bit ridiculous with those penguins and such but to me this was Burton more unleashed.

    But that amount of freedom the director had led to the backlash and the dumbing down of the next films that followed which were more kid centric.

    • Thanks so much! There seem to be a lot of fans of Batman Returns out there and opinion of it seems to have become more positive over the years. I love Batman and always appreciated a good Tim Burton film and whilst his first Batman will always be my favourite, Returns is still a great second outing and vastly superior to Batman Forever and (shudder) Batman and Robin.

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